Posts from August 2015

August 26th, 2015

Hope and Pope in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

 

The latest issue of Harper’s very much wanted me to pay most of my attention to harper'sWilliam Deresiewicz’s cover essay on how colleges and universities these days have been co-opted by a “neo-liberal” agenda that infests institutions of higher learning – and how the students themselves have also been co-opted by this agenda, now solely concerned with what practical, business-world advantages they can get out of their college years instead of, I suppose, wandering the quad in togas contemplating the nature of perfection, as Deresiewicz implies they did in the good old days.

This kind of silliness is the main Harper’s stock-in-trade: Subject X isn’t as good as Subject X used to be back when we were young, and the reasons why are both a) the product of lazy indulgence, and b) not our fault. Deresiewicz uses the formula almost without deviation (the raw chunks of misunderstood or just-plan-wrong information from America’s educational history are a bonus), worrying for thousands of words that students aren’t coming to colleges anymore in order to commune with the Muses but rather to hustle, to make connections, to grab what information they need in order to hurry on to create business start-ups and the like. Whither Pope? Whither Swinburne? “It is not the humanities per se that are under attack,” he writes. “It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.” According to him, students aren’t coming to college anymore in order to reflect and think and grow, and the change is having a demoralizing effect on those lonely warriors on the front lines:

All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are lots of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office – rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next – to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.

This piece wasn’t the first thing of Deresiewicz’s that made me wish he’d occasionally (maybe out of a sense of intellectual mission?) set one foot off an Ivy League campus, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. This is an author who can do all the background research necessary to write a piece like this – research about the internationalization of the jobs market, and about the skyrocketing of college costs, and about the increasing deficiencies of high school education – and come away from it all blissfully untouched by any sense of what it means that college costs at least $25,000 a year, or that for most people, $25,000 a year is a lot of money. Come away from it all still content to write a piece carping at young people for not majoring in the Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetic and then, fully ensouled, leaving college and living the rest of their lives on the annuity Grandfather Bigelow set up during the Pierce administration.

As I mentioned, the magazine clearly intended Deresiewicz’s headline piece to grab my attention, but the real goodies were to be found elsewhere in the issue (just as last month readers had to grit their teeth through a headline piece on parenting by loathsomely self-absorbed people like Sarah “Kid or no kid, it’s still all about me” Manguso before they could enjoy a great essay by Sam Sacks on, well, what’s wrong with war fiction today), ranging from Elaine Blair’s fantastic review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel to Matthieu Aikins’ searing piece on a dangerous gangster running the streets of Karachi.

But my favorite thing in this issue was the photo-spread by the great Glenna Gordon,

a detail from one of Glenna Gordon's great Kano photos
a detail from one of Gordon’s great Kano photos

“Romancing Kano,” in which she gives readers a vibrant, complex glimpse into the lives of the women of Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city. She concentrates this Harper’s collection around littattafan soyayya, the “love literature” homemade romance novels written by women and bought by women in a city under siege by a strain of mouth-frothing Islam that would forbid women physical freedom, let alone literacy.

I’ve been to Kano, and I’ve experienced the immense hospitality (and utterly infectious laughter) of Nigerian women, and these beautiful photos both brought back memories of those days and also raised old familiar fears about the candles of those lives being snuffed out. One of Gordon’s photos shows a woman laying on a bed in her home, reading one of these Kano-market novels, and it’s a lovely image, and it takes a minute to remember how enragingly, doubly blasphemous (a woman reading, and a woman reading something that’s not the Koran) such a picture is to the armed Islamic fanatics currently destroying 2000-year-old ruins and mass-kidnapping schoolgirls for sex slavery. It was the highlight of this issue, seeing these slender glimpses of hope.

August 20th, 2015

90 Years of New Yorker Cartoons in the Penny Press!

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new yorker cartoonsOn newsstands now, as the saying goes, is one of my very favorite semi-regular Penny Press confections: a New Yorker cartoon collection. This one is meant to commemorate the magazine’s 90th anniversary (as unbelievable as that figure must seem to some of us), and (equally unbelievable, in its own way) this seems to be the only such recognition that milestone is going to get in 2015 – a glossy bound magazine rather than a book. Still, for $13 this is one nifty little anniversary item and might just reach more New gluyas williamsYorker fans than a $50 hardcover would have done.

This issue is set up decade by decade, a fairly standard arrangement that’s still irresistible, since it shows the steady evolution of the magazine’s cartoonists efforts to mirror the fads of their society. When you watch that evolution, driven by temporary fads, played against what’s often demonized as the eternal New Yorker “themes” (therapy, class friction, downtrodden workers, over-privileged kids – basically, the Upper East Side), you get a weird and not at all unpleasant suggestion of an institutional brain guiding the whole process, decade after decade, allowing for changes in architecture and clothing styles and argot, but keeping the feel of everything remarkably consistent. It’s a big part of what makes New Yorker cartoons so oddly comforting – at their best, they’re predictable but not boring, socially relevant but also anodyne, simultaneously cutting and coddling. All of which might sound vaguely horrifying to some people (I’ve known various changing guards of such people my entire life), but me? Sign me up! As an old friend discovered just recently, one of the surest ways to make my eyes positively light up on a book-gift is to give me one of those will steigmildewy old hardcover cartoon collections the New Yorker used to publish fairly regularly back when the Cold War was on.

This magazine substitute isn’t half bad either. Most of the New Yorker all-time classics are here, including “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it” and “I don’t care what you say – I’m cold!” and, a personal favorite for obvious reasons (and taped to my old transparent blue desktop computer), “On the Internet, nobody steinerknows you’re a dog.” New Yorker greats like Peter Arno, Charles Addams, George Booth, my beloved Helen Hokinson, Saul Steinberg, and my favorite, Gluyas Williams (whose “The Day the Cake of Soap Sank at Procter & Gamble’s” leads off the collection even though it’ll make no sense whatsoever to most of the issue’s readers) are all represented here, as are newer giants like Dan Shanahan, Joe Dator, and the mighty Roz Chast, although the collection’s “more than 262.5” selections means quite a few favorites are going to be left out, this issue is full of wonderful stuff.

5th avenueAnd by flipping through the pages, you get to see some of those standby New Yorker themes slowly adapt themselves over the decades. The earliest cartoons lean heavily on a semi-affectionate spoofing of the cluelessness of the very uppermost ‘class’ in America in the ’20s and ’30s (you see this quite often in the Saturday Evening Post covers of the time as well), the joshing of the toff. But gradually both toffs and their ribbing disappear from the landscape. The very rich remain (they shall be always with us), but they slowly take on more sinister and cutting tones, especially after President Eisenhower warned the country about the military-industrial complex. Likewise artful innuendo (including a famous “All right, have it your way – you heard a seal bark!” panel by James Thurber) is replaced by explicit talk of sex, and Botox, and Facebook.

I could have hoped for another elaborate hardcover volume like the one the magazine produced to celebrate its 75th anniversary – after all, it’s not every magazine that gets to turn 90 – but this glossy issue will certainly tide me over until the big 100-years hoopla commences in 2025. And in the meantime, there may still be one or two of those mildewy old volumes I haven’t yet discovered …

August 18th, 2015

The Height of Fashion in the Penny Press!

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details fashionAfter a solid week of Penguin Classics, what better palate-cleanser could there be than a sojourn through the Fall Fashion issues of the glossy magazines? It’s a way to run a quick finger down the ‘content’-xylophone from the deeper notes of Longfellow and Dostoevsky to, well, to the very, very strange world of fashion.

Almost all the big square-bound glossies indulge esquire stylein a Fashion issue at least once a year, doubling their page-length with very lucrative ads from all the biggest designer houses, and usually I avoid these issues like the proverbial plague, mainly because the editors of these issues tend to shelve any serious freelance articles they may have on the docket until later issues, figuring, no doubt, that a probing expose on Salvadoran torture gangs doesn’t exactly mesh well with the latest runway exotica from Paris and Milan.

vf styleI go to these magazines for those serious freelance articles, naturally, but I confess, I always feel a touch of interest in these elaborate fashion digressions, and for the least likely reason: oddly enough, I’ve known a few professional male models in my life, including one who, when he was in the business, was, you could say, fairly prominent. And from these three young men I’ve heard many war-stories from that business, fascinating stories and fascinating theorizing about what high-fashion bizarrities really are. One of these young men offhandedly told me that the weird, other-worldly stuff paraded down the high-profile runways aren’t, of course, meant to be worn in daily life but are instead “what poor people will be imitating in ten years” (what can I say? One of these three young men was a bit of a douche). Another said the big fashion salvatoreshows are meant only as “comic book versions” of the designers’ actual aesthetic vision. All three told tales of clouds of tobacco, rivers of hard liquor, and discreet piles of cocaine (and, incidentally, daily eating habits that even I would consider indulgently bad), as well as horror stories of megalomaniacal show-runners and designers treating models like herd animals. I believe there were a couple of mentions of sex as well.

The fashion issue of Details gives a mighty snapshot of that world on its cover, which features 31 of the top male models working today, and the Details crew devotes their efforts 100 % to their subject – the issue has virtually no editorial content whatsoever (not that it’s ever exactly War and Peace), just display after display of preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.

bottega venetaThe fashion issue of Esquire is a slightly more substantial affair. It has a profile of arrogant young actor Miles Teller (profiled before the box office performance of his starring vehicle, Fantastic Four, gave him a bit less cause for arrogance), an interview with Keith Richards by the redoubtable Scott Raab, and a short but meaty review by Richard Dorment of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. But the issue is nevertheless crammed full of the aforementioned preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.

And then there’s the fashion issue of Vanity Fair, a big fat thing which has a very interesting article about Chelsea marcelo burlonClinton by Evgenia Peretz and a hilariously appalling piece by Nancy Jo Sales on the ‘culture’ of Tindr – but which is mostly just one fashion display after another. And turning through those slick pages, one after another, looking at all these impossible-looking people draped in these impossible-looking clothes, I was struck by two things: the egregious fragility of the fashion items – you can tell just by looking at these things, from the handbags to the sweaters to the blouses, that they’re not constructed to survive even ten uses – and also, guccisecondarily, almost incidentally, their obscene expense. The Salvatore Ferragamo scarf? $450. The Marcelo Burlon shirt? $279 – and the matching poncho? $638. The Bottega Veneta polka-dot dress? $2400. The Haute Dogs lip glosses? $50 per color. The grotesque red Gucci bag? $2980

These figures are only fractions of the price tags you find in the men’s “gear” magazines, where $10,000 wristwatches are not uncommon, but they’re still mighty depressing. The pictures are gaudy and weird and eye-catching, but its depressing to think there are people in the world who’ll pay $3000 for a flimsy shoulder bag that would fall apart if it were asked to carry, say, ten books – not to mention the fact that haute dogs$3000 would buy you 3000 $1 books at the Brattle bargain carts.

The people who are the actual customers for the kinds of clothing in these fashion magazines are the people I sometimes see at the Brattle sale lot – glancing at it in blank, uncomprehending disinterest before passing on without a second thought. It’s a shame – but at least I managed to hook all three of those former model-boys in reading for pleasure! And we’ll get back to that very thing tomorrow, now that we’re done with the camera-flashes and the runways.

July 15th, 2015

Disasters Big and Small in the Penny Press!

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vf channing tatumThe Penny Press this week featured a long article on a remorseless natural disaster, something that strikes without warning, wantonly destroys property, and inflicts untold pain and misery on humans around the world.

I refer, of course, to corgis.

Specifically, to a wonderfully wonky article in the latest Vanity Fair by Michael Joseph Gross about the many seething, boiling crowds of corgis Queen Elizabeth II has overseen for the last fifty years, with whom she’s been photographed innumerable times, and who’ve caused many a statesman, both foreign and domestic, to curse fair Albion after having a wayward ankle mauled. Gross’ article quotes many corgi enthusiasts about how spirited and frolicsome the little dears are (one interviewee is willing to concede that they can be “a bit naughty”), but at no point does anybody use the word “monsters.” Noblesse oblige, no doubt.

Nevertheless, and I say this as somebody with the most vested of all vested interests, the breed is rotten. Not Dalmation-level rotten, nothing nuclear like that, but still: calling corgis “a bit naughty” is like calling Donald Trump “a bit dim.” These are dogs who savagely attack their own litter-mates when jockeying for position at the food-bowl; these are dogs who listen carefully to human instructions and them pointedly ignore them; these are dogs who never waste an opportunity to make a pain of themselves. These traits are common in squat, tubby breeds with short legs (dachshunds, for instance, or a certain other breed which shall remain nameless), but they’re virtually weaponized in corgis.

Nevertheless, as Gross makes clear, the little monsters serve a much-valued function for this queen's corgisparticular owner:

The corgis are more than symbols, though. In a life ruled by protocol, they provide an easy way for the Queen to break the ice with strangers. In what can be an isolating position, she gets from them unlimited amounts of love and physical affection, uncompromised by the knowledge that she is the monarch. Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself and leads them on daily walks, which also serve as a kind of therapy. Her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has referred to this form of therapy as his wife’s “dog mechanism.”

One dog breeder recalls a visit from a young Queen keen on inspecting a new litter, and the point is emphasized:

“We sat on the floor and talked about corgis. There’s a litter of puppies crawling around on our hands and knees and we’re sitting on the floor being tramped on and chewed and bitten. Puppies don’t care who it is, me or the Queen of England. They don’t care. They can chew bits of anybody.”

To which is should be strongly added: corgis don’t care. Corgis can chew bits of anybody. Not all puppies behave in such a way, and even those who do usually grow out of it.

One of the more melancholy points of Gross’ piece is that Queen Elizabeth appears to be as thoroughly responsible a person when it comes to dog ownership as she is when it comes to everything else; recognizing the fact that she herself is getting too old to manage crowds of headstrong, ankle-tangling dogs, she’s been steadily scaling back the size of her menagerie. All too soon, the article implies, the threat of corgis will no longer be present in all the royal haunts of Britain.

jj sempe under the same hatJust this opposite of this kind of impending relief applies in the week’s other disaster story, the piece Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker about the Cascadia subduction zone (read: massive fault line) that runs for several hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from California’s Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island. This New Yorker issue sports an absolute gem of a bright, happy summer cover by the great J. J. Sempe, but on the issue’s Table of Contents, Schulz is in full catastrophe mode about the mega-earthquake-tsunami that’s long overdue to erupt from the Cascadia zone:

Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.

“Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable,” Schulz writes. “The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible.” And she lays out the stark impossibility of the West Coast population being able to do that: the evacuation routes aren’t posted, the emergency relief plans aren’t in place, and public awareness of the potential danger is nonexistent. Basically, if the “Big One” Schulz describes ever actually happens, millions of people might die, and that whole stretch of North America would become a disaster area that would take many years to make habitable again.

Which is very nearly as bad as corgis, when you think about it.

July 10th, 2015

Summer – kinda – reading in the Penny Press!

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weekly standard summer reading15The always-delightful “Summer Reading” issue of The Weekly Standard came out recently (with its typically witty cover, only this one, unlike all the earlier classics of its kind, worries that its central joke will be missed by the general readership – so the punch line, “The Turn of the Screw,” is actually spelled out, just in case), full of book reviews. As usual in such issues, the books involved aren’t particularly “summery” in any way (and unlike the great such issue currently on display here at Open Letters Monthly, there isn’t even any theme in The Weekly Standard‘s round-up), but it’s still a wonderful variety, including Amy Henderson reviewing The Algonquin Round Table New York by Kevin Fitzpatrick, Daniel Heitman reviewing The Prince of Minor Writers, a collection of Max Beerbohm’s writings, edited by Phillip Lopate, and Stephen Smith reviewing Brendan Simms’ The Longest Afternoon, about the 2nd Light Battalion King’s German Infantry in Wellington’s army (a book so ably reviewed by OLM freelancer Matt Ray here).

For me, the highlight of the issue was Dominic Green reviewing Princes at War by Deborah Cadbury (which I reviewed here) and tossing off some choice zingers. “Only Churchill can coin a phrase, especially when Gibbon and Macaulay have coined it first,” he writes, for instance, and alas, our well-intentioned author doesn’t escape unscathed: “Deborah Cadbury comes from another beloved British dynasty, the Cadbury chocolate maker. Her prose is higher in calories than nutrients, and its velvety smoothness has a honeycomb center of cliché.”

And over in the TLS, there’s a plaintive letter from a dreamer named Christopher Denton, calling forlornly (and in excellent prose) for the return of sanity to modern poetry – and the poetry of the New Yorker in particular:

It would be refreshing if we could have poetry once in a while that makes sense, which contains at least a modicum of rhythm, which eschews narcissism, honours nature as well as humour, elucidates politics and philosophy, presents and element of form which actually differs from prose, avoids profanity at all costs, declines the use of idioms except in dialogue, and respects the language and the reader.

In the same issue, Trev Broughton reviews two George Eliot pastiche novels, Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen and Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl, both trying some kind of re-imagining of Daniel Deronda. At Open Letters, we’re lucky enough to have the tlsservices of our very own Victorianist, Rohan Maitzen, who, among other things, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the works of George Eliot – and who wasn’t all that impressed with Souhami’s book, as you can see here. I thought Broughton’s piece was very good, especially his own glimpses at what might have been:

These two books share a desire common since Eliot’s earliest readers exchanged notes, to spring the spirited Gwendolen Harleth from Eliot’s final novel: to salvage her story from its wordy, worthy Zionist co-plot, and to save her from the most unerotic of erotic triangles between the priggish Daniel and the sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt.

Of course, neither Gwendolen nor Sophie and the Sibyl nor Daniel Deronda itself are what most people (pace Professor Maitzen) would consider “summer” books, but I guess not everybody can have Jackie Collins right there on their nightstand.

July 5th, 2015

Wonder in Pakistan in the Penny Press!

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heraldI’m one of many periodical readers, I suspect, who read Usman Malik’s superb mini-essay “Rockets, Robots, and Reckless Imagination” in The Herald magazine out of Pakistan; the piece has been linked and shared liberally since it appeared a couple of days ago, and deservedly so. In a little over 2000 words, Malik manages to write a piece that’s equal parts manifesto, celebration, and slightly agonized cry from the heart.

On one level, his subject what he perceives as the brain-dead pedagogy of his native Pakistan, its schools and teachers lacking imagination. But, wonderfully, he expands this to embrace the genre of imagination: science fiction (stipulating that by this term he means to include all branches of speculative literature or fantastika). He concedes (just a touch too glancingly, but still) that “mimetic” fiction, the stuff of realism and the like, has its purposes and joys, but for him, science fiction opens doors to wonder that are closed to all other genres:

Mimetic or realist literature has its own uses, but mimetic fiction doesn’t always explore alternative ways of living, learning and growing as individuals or peoples. It doesn’t necessarily evoke a sense of awe that could take us back to an age of innocence when the stars were a million hot eyes in the sky, the moon a silver sickle dangling from God’s Hand and the world a place filled with mystery.

For me, the most interesting part of his essay wasn’t the obvious fact that he himself has had his mind “lit up with revelation” after reading works of science fiction – in ways that no other genre quite does – but rather his call for a greater incorporation of the literature of science fiction into the various reading lists of the Pakistani educational system. Reading along in complete agreement with him, I was struck by the wonderfully bizarre company of names he invokes:

Writers like Naiyer Masud, Kelly Link, M A Rahat, Ray Bradbury, Ted Chiang, Jeff Vandermeer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Mary Robinette Kowal, Vandana Singh, Samuel R Delany, Mazhar Kaleem, A Hameed, and Anil Menon should be discussed and celebrated alongside Hemingway, Mohsin Hamid, Manto, Mumtaz Mufti, Bapsi Sidhwa and other (predominantly) realist writers.

I’m sure I won’t be the only person to read that roster and immediately think: Hemingway? Is Hemingway that big in Pakistan?

But mainly I was nodding enthusiastically, because I’ve felt that key core of wonder that Malik usmandescribes. I’ve felt the particularly strong wavelength of that wonder that emanates only from the world of science fiction, that feeling of having the boundaries of your imagination abruptly stretched and redefined. I’ve experienced it with works ranging from A Princess of Mars to Dune to A Million Open Doors – indeed, it’s what keeps me coming back to speculative fiction. I’ve been reading a larger than average amount of science fiction and fantasy so far this summer, and a dozen times since April (when Boston still had ten feet of snow on the ground, so I guess it only technically counts as anything close to summer), I’ve found myself wondering a question very near to Malik’s: why isn’t this stuff taught more often in schools, especially high schools where kindling the wonder of reading is more difficult and more important than ever?

So hats off to Usman Malik! Here’s hoping lots of teachers – in Pakistan and well beyond – were paying attention.

June 18th, 2015

Tears (of Laughter?) in the Penny Press!

bunch-of-magazines1Sometimes, a New Yorker cartoon captures things just about perfectly:

new yorker

June 9th, 2015

The Also-Rans in the Penny Press!

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I don’t often give my second-tier periodical reading the attention it deserves here on Stevereads, which is a little unfair considering how much reading enjoyment it so regularly gives me. It’s true that my main fare comes from mighty banquets like the TLS or the New York Review of Books or Harper’s or the Atlantic or The National Geographic, but there’s plenty of other magazine reading to be done, and it’s the second-tier journals that fill in those gaps. Basically, I’ll go wherever there are book reviews, no matter how repulsive the journal itself may be.

And when it comes to repulsive, the quasi-respectable journals don’t get much more odious than the Weekly Standard, the cover story of which this week is something called “Obama’s Reformation,” a story about various “religious freedom” exemptions to US anti-discrimination laws that naturally portrays the religious groups in question as victims of authoritarian governmental overreach. The piece is written by Adam White, who’s identified as an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is exactly what you’d guess it is from its name, a ‘think tank’ New York cabal that would have to become more progressive before it could even be called crypto-fascist.

wstandardAnd the crypto-fascism if anything increases before it levels out, in this particular issue of the Weekly Standard, with somebody named Gary Schmitt turning in an excellent review of Emma Sky’s The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, full of lively descriptions such as this quick bit about the odd couple nature of Sky’s relationship with General Odierno in Iraq:

A more odd-looking pair would be difficult to find: a relatively tiny, waifish English woman in her 30s and a bald, six-foot-six massive former football player who (to her mind) was weirdly fond of Texas and its gun-toting, electric-chair-wielding yahoos. Although they appear to have routinely crossed swords on the wisdom of the decision to oust Saddam – with her dismissing it as part of some crazy neocon conspiracy – she admits she stood “in awe of him” and his capacity to lead in such a complex effort effectively and charismatically.

The review might have been good, but Schmitt himself? He’s “Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.” It’s not often that you don’t even need to Google something to know everything important about it, but this is surely one of those times.

That’s the besetting problem with magazines like the Weekly Standard, and it’s the boston reviewreason why mentally reasonable readers tend to give them a wide berth: the writers for such magazines, even the book reviewers, are duty-bound to import an ideological slant into their pieces – in this case, the standard American ultra-right wing nutjob “conservative” ideology that’s currently embodied by the racist, sexist, xenophobic, craven little megalomaniacs who constitute the warped version of the Republican Party today. In the Weekly Standard, this ideology takes the usual form of a wistful, semi-angry regret on the writer’s part that we’ve all allowed those shrill feminists and homo-sexuals to drive society’s agendas so far from the Lost Golden Age “we” all remember as being so much better, so much more sensible than the crazy way things are today.

This kind of nonsense is bad enough in lead stories like that piece of crap about “religious freedom” under fire, where even an unwary reader goes in expecting that the whole thing will be a code-worded screed designed to attack all inroads made by social equality into the time-honored preserves of wealthy white people in entrenched positions of power (gays wanting to marry? Women wanting equal pay? Minorities wanting protection from summary execution by the police? Aw, c’mon – remember how things USED to be? Why do we all have to CARE about this stuff?). But it’s worse when it crops up in book reviews, which are supposed to be about the books under review.

Take Charlotte Allen’s review of Medieval History by Kevin Madigan, in which there’s this little tidbit:

Yet Madigan’s book, although admittedly informative, as [sic] least as much about the preoccupations, ideological and otherwise, of today’s academic historians of the Middle Ages as it does about the Middle Ages themselves. For example, while Medieval Christianity follows the general chronological order of the Middle Ages, starting with Rome’s fall and ending with the dawn of modernity in the early 16th century, the book is organized primarily in terms of topics. This seems to reflect the disdain of many contemporary historians for “diachronic” – that is, strictly sequential – accounts of human history in favor of “synchronic” approaches that examine events as related clusters.

Ah yes, those “contemporary” historians pandering to the PC learning disabilities of their pill-popping, lawyered-up never-went-to-Choate students by serving up bite-sized “diachronic” topics instead of normal meat-and-potatoes sequential history (remember how things USED to be?). I seem to recall that Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy – in all its diachronic glory – was written back in 1860, and was preceded and followed by countless other such works, but maybe Burckhardt & co. likewise had lazy, Commie students to accommodate.

And sometimes, this ideological mission creep can go from oily to genuinely offensive, as in the case of Edwin Yoder’s review of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, which ends, incredibly, with this:

Constitutionally speaking, John Wilkes Booth’s act had the effect of largely confining the postwar examination of Lincoln’s official stewardship of the Constitution to scholarly literature. Only there, and only in scattered instances, was there any searching evaluation of Lincoln’s huge expansion of presidential powers. Lincoln the agile lawyer adroitly rationalized quite extraordinary executive measures as essential exercises of war powers, identifying what Booth viewed as “tyrannical” as mere normal precedent. Succeeding wartime presidents have not been slow to follow. This was, perhaps, the crowning irony of Booth’s heinous and destructive crime.

Quick: despite the ridiculous sop of that “heinous and destructive,” do you think Yoder is for or against Booth shooting Lincoln in the head?

Expansion of executive powers … in the wrap-up to a piece on John Wilkes Booth. It would be funny if it weren’t so revolting.

american scholarBut lest I give the wrong impression, there’s quite a bit of legitimately wonderful stuff in these second-tier journals! It’s not all code-worded crypto-fascism! Take the last issue of the Boston Review, for instance. It has a very good review by Meghan O’Gieblyn of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed;

The ritual takedown of a scapegoat may gratify, however fleetingly, an impulse for justice, but it often benefits the very institution supposedly under attack. We perpetuate the system when we limit our outrage to a single person. That is not to say systemic problems are immune to public activism, but even minor change requires persistent and sometimes tedious work.

And the last issue of the venerable American Scholar has a wonderful (too short!) review by Graeme Wood of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder:

One of the pleasures of her book is that it demonstrates how Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, rather than copying reality, showed that it contained within it more than one could have supposed – inner space, both psychological and biological. To see the world in a milkmaid’s averted gaze, or in a splash of pond scum, takes genius of a high order …

It might not seem like much, but it’s enough to keep me coming back.

June 1st, 2015

Unlikely Spring in the Penny Press!

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harpersReading the cover story of the latest Harper’s, David Bromwich’s magisterial, damning assessment of the Obama presidency, certainly did no wonders for my lunch-time digestion. Just the first paragraph reads like a cold halibut across the face:

Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other. He talks with unnerving ease on both sides of an issue: about the desirability, for example, of continuing large-scale investment in fossil fuels. Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled twice by what followed – there must be millions of us – will feel that this president deserves the kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor mostly likely will also be worse.

I read Bromwich’s long piece with mounting admiration at his rhetorical ability and almost not one single scintilla of agreement at his conclusions, and the combination ended up being so depressing that I turned with great relief to the “Spring Books” issue of The Nation – and was very nearly depressed all over again. I opened the “Spring Books” issue and encountered … well, hardly a big lineup of books any normal readership would be likely to read this Spring – or any other Spring. There’s a review by Aaron Thier of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, a William Deresiewicz review of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, a dual review of Moira Weigel of Keywords by Raymond Williams and Distant Reading by Franco Moretti … you see what I mean: not exactly anybody’s idea of ‘it’ books, although the pieces themselves, typically for The Nation, were first-rate.

But my spirits not only perked up but soared when I got to Corey Robinson’s long nationessay in the same issue! It’s even less a “Spring Books” piece than the others – it discusses Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt, and Becoming Eichmann by David Cesarini, for Pete’s sake – but what it lacks in edge-of-summer topicality it more than makes up for with edge-of-your-seat brilliance.

Robinson looks at the literary firestorm that was sparked into existence by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, including multiple excoriations by some of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals of the day, and the discussion is invigorating throughout – in fact, I wanted the piece to keep going, and I knew I was in good hands right from the beginning of the piece:

Like so many Jewish texts throughout the ages, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an invitation to an auto-da-fe. Only in this case, almost all of the inquisitors are Jews. What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?

The fact that the Penny Press regularly provides me with such gems is the reason I keep the whole anachronistic machinery of magazine subscriptions wheezing and clanking along. Bravo, Corey Robinson!

May 14th, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Petty in the Penny Press!

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Any given issue of the mighty TLS will be an intellectual and even emotional journey, tls1and the 1 May issue was no exception. The showpiece of the issue was the great conductor Leon Botstein reviewing two new books about the composer Franz Schubert, one of which was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, so ably reviewed by our Open Letters Editor-in-Chief Greg Waldmann in our current issue. Like Waldmann, Botstein is actually a fan of this composer’s wretchedly lachrymose song-cycles, although unlike Waldmann, Botstein panics and falls back on quasi-reviewspeak gibberish:

Schubert’s music transfigured the particular without falsifying suffering through cheap sentimentality. His was not confessional music. Rather, he used the vantage point of the deeply personal, to reach beyond his particular historical context and communicated both an uncanny emotional and philosophical intensity and a resistant realism about the human existential predicament.

That was disappointing, granted, but the same issue had plenty of compensations, from a review of Pat Shipman’s prehistoric-dog book The Invaders by the great Ian Tattersall, in which he dissents from the book’s main thesis but agrees with its rueful inspiration:

Still, few if any readers of this lucid and compelling exposition will come away believing that the early modern Europeans were not deeply implicated in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Clearly, our guilt complex about these unfortunate hominids is entirely warranted.

And other good stuff, from a review of The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela done by Open Letters friend and erstwhile contributor (and mastermind of The Quarterly Conversation) Scott Esposito to a short bit of praise by John Ure for Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the doomed Lusitania – a short bit of praise during which Ure feels compelled to take up a chunk of his precious space doing a note-perfect imitation of a classic reviewer-pedant:

British readers may be exasperated by some of the Americanisms. The First Lord of the Admiralty is not ‘Britain’s top naval official’ but the minister responsible for the navy in the government; and the use of the word ‘rug’ rather than ‘blanket’ (on a deck chair) may not strike readers as a peculiar case of ‘the ship’s vernacular’. But these are minor quibbles.

And speaking of Open Letters (as, indeed, when am I not?), how could a passage in David McKitterick’s review of Lotte Hellinga’s Texts in Transit fail to bring to mind many a hectic late-night deadline session:

At the centre was not so much the press as the compositor, the man who set the type. Whatever his copy might offer, whether direct from an author, from an old manuscript, from a new one, or even from a mixture, he had somehow to fit words into the given space available on the press.

There’s not one of us associated with Open Letters who hasn’t breathed a silent prayer of thanks for our own compositor, Kennen McCarthy, on those hectic nights when the monthly issue is springing into being, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t at least once received one of his politely pointed (or is it pointedly polite?) emails asking where X is when X is something we thought we’d sent him days ago. McKitteridge is right to point out the vital nature of such people in actually getting a publication to its intended recipients.

If only the whole of this issue of the TLS could have been so congenial! But no: instead, on the letters pages a note was struck that was so sour, so bitter, so selfish that it effectively soiled the entire issue.

Historian and biographer Fred Kaplan, writing about the documentary remains of the great Gore Vidal, sends a letter about ‘four substantial loose-leaf volumes of chronologically arranged typescripts of Vidal’s letters that have an honoured place on my basement storage shelves.’ The context is the open question of a “Collected Correspondence” volume of Vidal’s letters, and the more you read Kaplan on the subject, the more your jaw drops in astonishment:

Vidal is a magnificent letter-writer. The letters ought to be published. Perhaps I could be persuaded to edit them for publication under the right circumstances. No one else, I suspect, will ever collect them or be able to collect them from their owners. But it would take a lot of persuasion. And there is the question of who controls the estate (contested, I think) and probably issues of control and costs. Why don’t I simply turn over all my transcriptions to the Vidal archive at Harvard and let someone else edit them for publication? Perhaps I will, at my death. In the meantime, I suppose, I’m getting a small bit of revenge, which perhaps doesn’t speak well of me, But I trust that some of your readers will not be entirely unsympathetic.

Revenge – on a man who’s been dead for years. At the expense of all that man’s fanstls2 and the entire scholarly community. But Kaplan has the nerve to say that PERHAPS this doesn’t speak well of him, and he says this in the middle of a thinly-veiled and incredibly petulant demand that the Republic of Letters court him – perhaps with flowers and chocolates (but really with a pile of money) – to calm down and stop holding a grudge against Vidal. We understand you’ve been hurt, we’re supposed to say, those of us who’d like to read the letters Kaplan is hoarding, but if you’ll just accept our groveling apologies for how he treated you, maybe …

It’s nauseating, and Kaplan follows it up with a steaming pile of bile:

Vidal had a self-destructive or at least a self-defeating streak. I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship. The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one. This short-sightedness was part of a lifelong pattern. He was a witty but not a wise man. He alienated or expelled almost every friend, family member, editor, publisher and literary peer, with the exceptions of Howard Austen and Jay Parini, both of whom put up with abusive treatment in order to stay close to him; he made decision after decision, including his residence in Italy, that limited or damaged his American career and presence; and he allowed a desire for celebrity and celebrity-mongering to dominate his life. Indeed, he accomplished much as a novelist, essayist and political polemicist. But his arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception were always all too evident and limiting … Towards the end his dementia added a sad coda. It was a great talent heavily burdened. I wish it could have been otherwise.

The classic bent reasoning of an abusive bully: the attempt to characterize his own boorish actions as mere reactions, the disgusting “I’m sorry you made me do this” line of every two-bit extortioner in history. “The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one.” And why? Because Gore Vidal, who’s now, it bears repeating, dead, was mean to Fred Kaplan. That’s why Kaplan will neither produce a “Collected Letters” volume nor allow anybody else access to his unique materials. That’s why – the threat is plainly implied – he may destroy those materials rather than allow them to fall into some scholar’s hands after his death.

Like I said, reading his letter, seeing that such despicable self-absorbed censorship exists even at the heart of the writing world, soiled the rest of the issue for me. If there’s any justice in the world, Kaplan will be raked over the coals in subsequent letters pages for his abominable behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.